2019 outlook part 1: The challenges and opportunities facing feature filmmakers

Richard Roxburgh (as Dad), Daisy Axon (as Candice), & Emma Booth as (Mum), H is for Happiness - Photograph by David Dare Parker

Richard Roxburgh, Daisy Axon and Emma Booth in ‘H is for Happiness.’

For Robert Connolly, 2019 is the year when filmmakers will need to rise to the challenge of the massive success of TV drama by offering unique experiences.

For Sue Maslin, the primary goal is for all players in the screen industry to take a more active part in understanding and shaping theatrical features instead of operating like a stack of dominoes in which “each falling tile triggers the movement along the value chain.”

With too many low budget films chasing too few distributors to qualify for the Producer Offset, Sue Milliken is one of many who advocates the government should start allowing contracts with streaming services as an alternative to the requirement for a theatrical release.

These are among the views on the challenges and opportunities facing the feature film industry from key players collated by IF as part of a broader look at the outlook for the screen sector this year.

Connolly asks: “How can cinema offer audiences a unique experience at a time when so much terrific content is available at home? Alfonso Cuarón’s ROMA was ahead of the curve with its large format cinematography and cinematic vision proving of interest to audiences even though it was simultaneously available on Netflix. “

The writer-director-producer, who starts shooting The Dry next month, predicts: “I think we will start seeing great innovation and ambition from established filmmakers as they explore ways to create work that demands to be seen in the cinema.

“New and emerging filmmakers will need to avoid stepping in the shoes of well-worn feature film tropes and genres and also find new and innovative ways to create their work. It’s an exciting challenge, with audiences hopefully rewarded with break-out works for the screen.”

Twelve months ago, Maslin posed the question: “Is there a future for the Australian feature film industry, and if so, what will it look like?”

The past year has provided some interesting insights: The central idea needs to be powerful enough to trigger the creative attachments and, in turn, the finance for production and a campaign which attracts audiences.

The Dressmaker producer is among a group of producers, distributors, exhibitors and screen agencies that is meeting regularly and starting to address the challenges facing the business as a whole. “The data on audience behaviour is available and we need to have better informed conversations between all players about the kinds of movies we want to make going forward,” she says.

“Yet in 2018, more feature films were produced locally than in any year previously by filmmakers who think that making a feature film is the game. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our opportunity is to reignite leadership, imagination and creative risk-taking across the board.”

Milliken, who is enjoying a late career surge after producing Ladies in Black with Allanah Zitserman, believes the fragmenting theatrical market is more challenging and there has been a drop in audiences who are willing to go to cinemas to see small Aussie movies. Even with those that get good reviews, the release costs mean fewer distributors are prepared to risk a promotion budget big enough to justify a respectable BO.

While she is heartened to see SVOD services are commissioning more content from Australian producers, she fears the kind of material being greenlit may become largely international in theme, at the expense of stories that comment on or are embedded in our society.

“Whatever happens, I have confidence that Australian filmmakers will continue to provide audiences with challenging and exciting product,” she adds.

Julie Ryan, a producer on Anthony Marais’ Hotel Mumbai and John Sheedy’s H is for Happiness, is an optimist, hailing the record six Aussie films that are screening in Sundance this year as further evidence that the quality and international reach of our feature films has increased substantially over the past few years.

But raising finance is as difficult as ever in the marketplace, which means producers rely heavily on government funding bodies. “We need solid budgets to attract high calibre actors and experienced crew, so producers are now feeling the pinch of government cuts as costs have only increased but finance has decreased overall,” Ryan says.

“It’s still tough to get decent DGs and advances from sales agent. Not so tough if you have an Australian A-list actor attached but you’d be surprised at how few of those we actually have. Often they’re not available as they’re either making films in Hollywood or our budgets aren’t big enough to afford their fees.

“That’s the single biggest reason we need the ability to import a lead actor for feature films. Also distributors may then be willing to increase their DGs if they can bank on a known actor.”

Producer Steve Jaggi (Back of the Net, Rip Tide) is also bullish, given the demand for content globally is at an all-time high. Like Milliken and others, Jaggi believes deals with streaming services should qualify for the Producer Offset.

“We see the core area of growth in modestly budgeted (up to $US3 million) content for streaming and digital services. Removing restrictions around the import of foreign artists would spur further growth in this sector, providing additional employment opportunities for Australian cast, crew and creatives,” he says.

From a wider industry perspective, Screen Producers Australia CEO Matt Deaner says: “We will be continue to champion the opportunities and pathways for our industry from growth in trade and will be issuing our second Deloitte Census of Industry to help understand where we are sitting and where our potential lies.

“As a sector, there is no doubt we are falling behind our global competitors both in overall growth and market share at a boom time for content. This is disappointing. We have delayed positive structural changes and appropriate investments – first proposed in the 2012 Convergence Review – for years.

“In this, an election year, we need our politicians to move from endless talking into action and will be working proactively within our membership and colleagues from across the industry to ensure that we #makeitaustralian.”

Hoyts CEO Damian Keogh says his circuit and the cinema industry body NACO are keen to support local productions but observes that low budget and low quality movies cannot attract audiences to justify extensive screen space.

“As always the key to successful content will lie in great stories, great scripts and quality productions,” Keogh says. “Attracting the right level of investment for the right project and executing well is key for a local success, which was best represented by Ladies in Black last year.”

Twelve new cinemas opened in Oz last year. Noting that 2018 was an all-time record for the BO in the US and worldwide, Keogh adds: “Cinema as an industry is alive and well (but) in Australia margins are being squeezed in cinema and this will continue.”

After an inconsistent 2018, exhibitors are looking forward to a more even flow of films. “After what should be a good January, March onwards is looking very strong right through the US summer season, with some great blockbusters,” says Majestic Cinemas CEO Kieren Dell.

The line-up includes Captain Marvel, Dumbo, Avengers: Endgame, Aladdin, Rocketman, Godzilla, Men in Black: International, Toy Story 4, Secret Life of Pets 2, Spider-Man: Far From Home and The Lion King, and, at year’s end, Frozen 2 and Star Wars: Episode IX.

Facing increased wages costs, Dell says a modest increase in ticket prices in necessary while maintaining targeted discounting to encourage more people to enjoy movies as they are meant to be seen – on the big screen.

“While there are challenges, the pure escapism and reasonable cost of going to the movies will, I think, come to the fore in a period of elections, falling house prices and some increases in the cost of living” he says.

Check back tomorrow for the outlook for Australian TV drama.